By Assoc Professor Eleanor H Wertheim FAPS
School of Psychological Science, La Trobe University

In 2004, Assoc Professor Eleanor H Wertheim FAPS was the recipient of the APS Directorate of Science Excellence in Teaching Award. This article is adapted from her presentation at the 2005 Australian Psychological Society Annual Conference, where she presented a Professional Forum (with 2003 APS Excellence in Teaching Award recipient Dr Gail Huon FAPS) on promoting excellence in teaching.

This article is the result of a journey I have taken through the educational system and the university and Australian national awards system. I have been teaching psychology since 1978, first as a tutor in the USA and then in a lecturing capacity (now Associate Professor) at La Trobe University. Several years ago, I decided to apply for a Faculty Dean’s Excellence in Teaching Award and thereby began a process of examining my own teaching philosophy, methods and outcomes. The process was a fascinating one as it allowed me not only to acknowledge the strengths in my teaching, but also to consolidate the manner in which I taught and to confront my relative weaknesses (or what I tell my students are ‘growing directions’). I strongly recommend this self-reflective process for anyone who is in the profession of teaching as it caused me to reconsider some of my practices and to celebrate my successes and strengths along the way.

A result of this process was that I did indeed successfully receive three teaching awards: an award at my university Faculty level, an individual teaching award from the Australian Universities Teaching Committee (Australian Award for University Teaching, Category 1: Biological Sciences, Health and Related Studies), and an Australian Psychological Society (APS) Directorate of Science Excellence in Teaching Award. As part of the process I have since given talks on my reflections on excellence in teaching. In this article I share some of these reflections, including four developmental stages that I saw myself going through, and which I have risked generalising to others. These stages are not meant to be strictly sequential, and are primarily hoped to be of use for others involved in university teaching as a rough framework of key elements in developing excellence in teaching. Also included is some information on the awards themselves.

Stage 1: Making it through the first day

The first developmental stage of teaching could be thought to reflect the process of being a novice teacher and struggling through the basic tasks of teaching a first class. The elements are also potentially of relevance to more experienced teachers who are embarking on teaching a new program, workshop or presentation.

In the same way as Maslow (1970) describes a hierarchy of needs for human beings, in which it is difficult to aim for higher order achievements (such as self-actualisation) unless lower order needs (such as safety, or psychological/esteem needs) are fulfilled, I would suggest that there is a similar hierarchy of development in teaching. So, the earliest stage is often about simple survival through a new and daunting task of being expected to impart knowledge to others very early in one’s career.

Three key components of this stage are: planning, preparing, and practising. Planning consists of activities like producing an overview of the aims and objectives of the teaching process framed from a student-centred point of view.This phase of the process involves asking questions, such as:

·Who is the audience (age, cultural group, gender, experience, likely expectations of students, group size, etc.)?

  • How much time have you got?
  • What are the knowledge and skills that you, as a teacher, want the students to achieve?
  • What is the level of knowledge and experience they have as a group at the start?
  • What is the best method to achieve the outcomes?
  • What are the current facilities and resources like?
  • How will you evaluate how it went?

This part of the process is key, and it can be useful for novice teachers to seek out the support of others to help frame some of the planning.

Preparing involves organising proper facilities and resources; researching the content area; finding and producing the materials such as lecture notes, exercises, PowerPoint presentations, handouts, audio/visual aids, and reading lists; adapting the content to fit the available time and resources; considering any ethical issues relevant to the approach taken; and organising the dissemination processes (liasing with the library, setting up WebCT access, etc.).

In addition to the substantive elements of the process, the new teacher will also need to prepare psychologically and emotionally. The task of getting up in front of a class, which may range from a small tutorial or supervision session to a massive first year undergraduate lecture theatre, can be daunting. So, considering how to calm the nerves a bit may be helpful. Meichenbaum’s (1985) suggestions about including self-instructions for the four phases of the process of dealing with a stressor can be useful.These phases include:

  • Planning for the stressor (e.g., saying to yourself, ‘I have prepared well, if I get nervous I’ll just go back to my lecture notes’).
  • Confronting the stressor (‘Just focus on the lecture notes. I am not expected to be perfect the first time I do this!’).
  • Dealing with feeling overwhelmed (‘I am starting to feel anxious now, that is a cue to just take a couple of slow breaths and exhale. It will be over soon!’).
  • Reward/evaluation after the class is over (‘Well done, I survived it! What can I learn for next time?’).

I often confess to beginning teachers or practitioners that even though I have been teaching for over 25 years, I still get anxious at the very start of a new lecture with a new group of students.It involves the thrill of a performance. Will the ‘audience’ respond well? Will they challenge what I say in a way I had not considered before?

Teaching is indeed like a performance as you take the students on a journey with you, one that is logically organised, hopefully, but one that will engage the students and which they will find useful for themselves personally. Having acknowledged the pre-performance jitters, the truth is that once I am ‘into’ the process of teaching I also become involved with the students and very soon we are simply engaging in a process together and the anxiety disappears. So it is useful to understand that anxiety or excitement is a normal and useful part of the process and one of the self-instructions when planning for the stressor of teaching can be ‘Remember that anxiety before a class is normal and it will go away once you become involved in the class’.

The final component of this first stage is practising. Practising can refer both to rehearsals before the actual event and to the actual presentations or teaching activities with students, the latter of which can be seen as practice for future teaching activities.

I strongly believe in rehearsing before the actual ‘performance’.Prior to engaging in a new class for the first time, which might involve a PowerPoint presentation, for example, I will go through the presentation at home saying out loud what I plan to say to the students in the class.This process of rehearsing is very useful in that I will discover whether what comes out of my mouth is what I intended to say or not (!), whether the sequence of what I am saying is logical, and so on.So I strongly recommend verbalising out loud.It can also help to present a particularly important presentation to a few supportive others and get feedback from them. When I gave a presentation in Canberra associated with the national award process, some supportive colleagues at my university agreed to give me feedback about it. We did a trial run at which I received some excellent feedback that I used to improve the presentation before the actual event.

The big day eventually arises, whether this be the first time a new teacher has taught, or the first time a more experienced lecturer has launched a new lecture, course or program.The practice begins in earnest at this time and lessons are learned for the next time the activity is repeated.

An important part of becoming an excellent teacher is to evaluate the performance at the end to learn for next time. Beginning teachers will tend to use the feedback from classes as evidence to decide whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ teachers. This is a natural, but not very useful, process. It is best to congratulate oneself on all the successes of the class (including making it through the class itself!), and then to decide what to repeat and what to improve for next time.

A final important aspect of practising involves learning to interact with students in a respectful and supportive way. This interaction is a key to success as a teacher and involves encouraging student input in classes, listening to students’ concerns, making time for them through regular office hours and appointments, and scheduling work so that assignments are returned on time with plenty of feedback including lots of positive comments.

Stage 2: Making it through the first years

Having survived and learned from the first day(s) of teaching, the teacher continues to develop in the work he or she does. The second phase is what could be called ‘Making it through the first years’. Some of the key elements of this process include: seeking role models, searching for support, and savouring success.

Seeking role models is immensely helpful in becoming a good teacher.I believe that modelling is a strong method of learning and clearly psychological research supports this idea (Bandura, 1977). Teachers have all been in the role of students in the past, so some of our first role models will be those teachers whom we found to be particularly effective, inspiring or impressive. It is useful to deliberately think about who were role models for us and how they have influenced our teaching as well as how we could integrate ideas based on their teaching into our own approach.

Our colleagues can also serve as useful role models. Over the years, I have had the good fortune to have some very impressive colleagues. They were people who thought big and made a difference in the world, through the sort of teaching, research and professional work that they did. They developed national and international teaching programs, always sought to engage students in worthwhile projects and helped me to move to the next developmental stage, which will be addressed shortly: understanding that the best teaching involves ‘making a difference’.

Searching for support is also a crucial part of the teaching process. Being a teacher is a very challenging job, which involves an immense amount of often-demanding interaction with students. At universities it involves simultaneous pressures to perform in the research field, to publish, to obtain grants, and for those of us who are professionals, to also engage with the community and our profession. In an era of decreasing university budgets and reductions in funding sources, the frequently competing pressures can be very emotionally draining. Therefore searching and finding support is crucial to survive this process. Searching for support involves finding colleagues who can help in both practical and emotional ways.

In practical terms, more senior colleagues (both within one’s own institution and externally) can help to serve as mentors to give advice on navigating the system, to normalise stresses, and to help solve problems. Team projects with colleagues can also be a very effective way of energising and producing greater results. When you find other colleagues with whom you work well, they are worth holding on to because good team members are worth their weight in gold.

Savouring success is a very useful part of this phase, too. Often, as teachers, we don’t receive much institutional recognition or reinforcement for our teaching. In most universities, promotions and advancement through the system tend to be based largely on excellence in research.So, in order to feel good and rewarded about our teaching, we need to enjoy our successes in the teaching domain and spend time acknowledging them for ourselves. When a student says ‘thank you’ for being helpful or comments that they thought the class was ‘very interesting’, it is worthwhile really taking in their positive comments and savouring them. Doing systematic evaluations is important for several reasons. In addition to the obvious one that it will help you fine tune teaching in the future, another important reason is that you confirm and celebrate what you are doing well, which will help maintain your enthusiasm for the teaching process.

Stage 3: Making a difference

The next phase involves moving towards making a real difference in the teaching one does. This phase arises as an outcome of developing one’s teaching over time, experiencing inspiring role models, and possibly personal growth and maturity about what is important in the world.Ideally the phase arrives early in the process of teaching, but often beginning teachers have so much to do just to go through the process of imparting knowledge and skills that it is difficult to start thinking big right from the start. There are four elements to this phase, which include:

  • Finding your real goals
  • Freeing students to reach their goals
  • Figuring out what works and doesn’t work
  • Finally, thinking BIG!!!

Finding your real goals is a process of looking deeply at what is important to you. To use myself as an example, throughout my years as a teacher of professional psychology students, I generally received good evaluations from students who enjoyed my lectures and found them interesting. But it was only after attending some workshops that challenged me to make a real difference in the world, that I started to rethink my classes and what I wanted students to get out of them. This process resulted in my changing both the content of what I taught and the process of teaching. I decided that I wanted students in my classes to come out of the experience having changed the way they viewed themselves and others, so they would be more compassionate about themselves and others. I wanted my students to not only know how to technically apply therapeutic skills to others, but to have a deeper understanding of the process of personal change, by having experienced it themselves.

Some of this process involved freeing students to reach their goals. I designed exercises and assignments, which ask students to choose a personal goal they want to achieve. Then students apply what they are learning to that goal. In negotiation classes, students choose a real-life negotiation to do; they apply the negotiation model they are learning (Wertheim, Love, Peck & Littlefield, 2005) to that situation, prepare for the negotiation, receive feedback on their plans, carry it out and then write a report on it all. In classes on therapeutic skills such as self-instructional training, students are asked to find a situation they feel anxious in and would like to be able to manage better, and then they apply the skills to themselves in the personally chosen contexts, again writing a report on the outcome and lessons learned. Of course, with any of these activities, clear ethical procedures need to be implemented, including designing assignments where the activities are contained to specific manageable contexts; ensuring that confidentiality and boundaries are clear and maintained; stressing the voluntary nature of the activities and offering alternative activities if students prefer them. When students focus on their own needs and personal goals, act on them and then apply the skills they are learning to their own lives, they achieve some of their own goals, become greater believers in the methods used, become more sophisticated at understanding the processes at a deep level, and are able to generalise the ideas to their work with future clients.

Figuring out what works and doesn’t work is a key part of this process of making a difference.Evaluation is needed to understand what impact one is having and this can be done informally/anecdotally and through systematic and independent evaluations.Integrating research into one’s teaching is useful here.

Finally, making a difference involves thinking BIG!!!! As one develops, one starts to think beyond the classroom within the university, also considering the impact one can have on the larger community.In my case it has brought me to teaching negotiation skills to a wide range of helping professionals and to work in Europe, Africa and Southeast Asia in preventive diplomacy and peacemaking programs for UN staff, international diplomats, non-government organisations, and indigenous peoples’ representatives.It has brought me to teach therapeutic skills to psychologists in Vietnam. I have become involved in a project to help primary schools develop conflict resolution and relationship enhancement programs in their schools. In addition to applying my teaching broadly, I can share my experiences with students and encourage them to think big too in what they can accomplish as psychologists. At this point there is a transition and, where the teacher formerly just sought role models, he or she now becomes one for others.

Stage 4: Making it to the awards

A further developmental stage to consider (indicated as Stage 4 out of 4 here, although, in reality, it is probably not really the ‘final’ stage) is ‘Making it to the awards’. Consider going through the process of applying for various awards for excellence in teaching. This recommendation is based not only on the positive outcomes if you do win (!), but also on the benefits of engaging in the process itself.Awards can be specific faculty or university-based excellence in teaching awards and promotions or national awards, such as the Australian Psychological Society Directorate of Science Excellence in Teaching Award, or the Australian Awards for University Teaching, which offer substantial funding for teaching development purposes. A similar process is often necessary for applications for promotion within universities, in which applicants may be required to describe their philosophy of teaching, approach, syllabus, etc. This stage can be viewed literally (applying for actual awards) and also metaphorically, in the sense of taking stock of one’s teaching, consolidating lessons learned, sharing lessons learned with others, and moving forward. There are three phases involved in making it to the awards: Examining strengths and growing areas; Evaluating your system of teaching; and Entering your application.

Examining strengths and growing areas is a process that ideally teachers engage in throughout their developmental process, however, applying for a teaching award can make the process more concrete and clear. Each award has specific criteria, which the applicant must demonstrate they fulfil to an excellent standard. Simply becoming aware of the various criteria can be useful.

The 2005 criteria for individual Australian Awards for University Teaching were as follows:

  1. Interest and enthusiasm for undertaking teaching and for promoting student learning.
  2. Ability to arouse curiosity, and to stimulate independent learning and the development of critical thought.
  3. Ability to organise course material and to present it cogently and imaginatively.
  4. Command of the subject matter, including the incorporation in teaching of recent developments in the field of study.
  5. Innovation in the design and delivery of content and course materials.
  6. Participation in the effective and sympathetic guidance and advising of students.
  7. Provision of appropriate assessment, including the provision of worthwhile feedback to students on their learning.
  8. Ability to assist students from equity groups to participate and achieve success in their courses.
  9. Professional and systematic approach to teaching development.
  10. Participation in professional activities and research related to teaching.

As each of us looks through the list, some areas are likely to be immediately obvious as strengths, while other areas may be ones little thought has gone into. Most of us generally teach in areas where we have a strong command of the subject matter (point 4), and we generally know we should organise our materials well (point 3) and so on. Hopefully we understand that it is important to show interest and enthusiasm for what we teach and for the students’ learning (point 1). But there are some other areas where university teachers are often not as well developed.

For example, a professional and systematic approach to teaching development (point 9) involves ensuring that we as teachers continue in an ongoing way to develop our own teaching abilities, to take advantage of offerings from university academic development units or external organisations to help us learn to teach better. As university lecturers or tutors, most of us never actually learned ‘how to teach’, so we simply copied previous teachers, who may or may not have had good teaching skills themselves. While most of us do continuing education related to the content of what we teach, few of us seek professional development in relation to how to teach. It would be to our benefit to become more knowledgeable about excellent teaching processes.

Additional criteria from the above list challenge us to consider how we assist various equity groups (e.g., different cultural groups, individuals at socioeconomic disadvantage or with disabilities) in the work we do.The criteria also challenge us to consider how innovative we are in the design and delivery of our teaching programs.

The Australian Psychological Society also offers an award for Excellence in Teaching. The 2005 criteria state that it is expected that there will be excellence as a classroom teacher and excellence in at least three other areas, such as in classroom teaching of psychology; thesis supervision; course or curriculum development; development of teaching materials and new modes of delivery; contributions to the teaching literature; or contributions to the profession of teaching psychology.

Evaluating your system of teaching. While it may not always be necessary to be consciously aware of one’s philosophy and approach to teaching to be a good teacher, an awareness of one’s system of teaching can be helpful to consolidate and improve what one does and to communicate that system to others. The process of evaluating one’s own system of teaching involves examining outcome goals of teaching, the process of teaching, and the system for evaluating those outcomes.

Entering your application is the final step in making it to the awards. As part of my own application process, preparing the actual submission enabled me to take a hard look at the quality of my teaching style and materials (which can be submitted in the case of some awards as ‘supplementary materials’).I realised that, although the content of the materials was good, sometimes the presentation could be improved or materials could be finetuned and objectives made clearer.So the process itself propelled me to improve my teaching materials, which ultimately was to the benefit of the students.

For those who would like to embark on this latter phase of the development of their teaching (or plan for it), take a look at some of the relevant websites.To obtain more information about the national Awards for University Teaching take a look at the Carrick Institute for Education and Learning in Higher Education website: .In 2006 a greatly expanded number and range of awards will be available.These will include 210 citations valued at $10,000, 40 awards at $25,000, and a Prime Minister’s award of $50,000. Awards will be available for individual excellence in teaching, institutional projects, team projects, and citations for those in the education system at a variety of levels (not just academic staff). The APS Excellence in Teaching Award is offered by the Directorate of Science: the APS website includes details.

In conclusion, these stages for the development of teaching are proposed to give a rough guide to some of the elements for developing excellence in teaching. They are not meant to be exhaustive or necessarily linear in sequence. For example, many of the elements of the first phase, ‘making it to through the first day’, are important throughout the career of a teacher and come into play whenever a new course or presentation is attempted. Similarly, evaluation of one’s teaching is discussed in the various stages and is a theme that runs throughout.Certainly ‘making it to the awards’ is simply a part of the process and does not truly represent the culmination of the development of teaching.However, the stages roughly parallel my own journey through the teaching profession to date and I hope that this conceptualisation of the process is of use to others who are at various stages in their own careers.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory.Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Maslow, A. (1970). Motivation and personality (2nd edition). NewYork: Harper and Row.

Meichenbaum, D. (1985). Stress inoculation training. New York: Pergamon.

Wertheim, E. H., Love, A., Peck, C., & Littlefield, L. (2005). Skills for resolving conflict: A co-operative problem solving approach (2nd edition). Melbourne: Eruditions.